WE’VE said it before a few times already this season, but it bears repeating: Edinburgh under Richard Cockerill are showing hitherto unknown strength of character.
That much has been obvious in the vast bulk of their games this season, but was perhaps never so plain as it was on Saturday night in the Stade Jean-Bouin. Of course in one sense you do not want to be too encouraged by any defeat, but the way in which Cockerill’s players competed in their Challenge Cup match against Stade Francais was nonetheless a serious measure of just how much they have improved their mental toughness this season.
They knew they had already qualified for a home quarter-final after winning their first five pool games, so that lessened the incentive to go out there and fight. The conditions were terrible too – the heavy pitch militated against flowing rugby, while a swirling wind made goalkicking extremely tricky – and that factor too could have encouraged Edinburgh to feel fated to lose.
Then there was Stade Francais themselves. Knowing they had to win to get into the last eight as one of the three best runners-up, the home side thundered into action straight from the kick-off, scoring two tries in the first seven minutes as they threatened to inflict a beating of embarrassing proportions on Edinburgh.
In the recent past, that threat would have become a reality: Edinburgh would have folded, lost 40 points or more, and gone home none too worried. But they are a different beast under Cockerill: far more willing to fight under any circumstances, no matter the quality of the opposition. They lost all right, but a 17-10 defeat after such a poor start was testament to their powers of recovery.
“I thought we learned about ourselves,” the head coach said. “We are better than we think we are, and if we apply ourselves and stay in the battle and play every minute like we mean it, then we’re good enough to keep pace with good sides like Stade.
“At half-time” – which came with Edinburgh 12-0 down – “I was frustrated, because we’re better than that. I wasn’t fussed about the final score, because I knew if we showed some character than we’d be in the mix.
“We need to learn from that. Give it 12 to 18 months and we’ll be expecting more from the guys because they know what it takes now.”
Cockerill has had just about six months so far in which to work with his side, and has clearly brought about a massive improvement in attitude as well as a marked improvement in results. It will be fascinating to find out how much better they can get over the coming year and a half.
“There’s no talent in effort, is there?,” the coach continued when asked how he was able to get evoke such strength of character from his players. “There’s just a choice: you can choose to stay in the fight or you can choose to give up. I only want players that want to choose to stay in the fight. Whether you’re young or experienced, world class or just a good club player, there’s no monopoly on effort.
“All I want is for Murray McCallum or Lewie Carmichael or whoever, Gilchrist, Du Preez or any of those senior guys – maximum effort all the time. Let’s see where it gets us. If I keep driving that it will become second nature and there will come a point where I don’t have to mention it at half-time, or before the game.”
While those forwards were engaged in close-quarters combat, backs such as Darcy Graham did their best in treacherous underfoot conditions to play an expansive game. The full-back eventually came off limping after a number of heavy tackles, but he was another one whose commitment to the cause pleased the coach.
“It’s tough,” Cockerill added after saying it was too early to know whether Graham had sustained any significant injury. “Darcy survives on his pace and his feet, and on a pitch so poor it’s very hard to be elusive.
“But it was a good experience for him. He’s going to have to play against big teams. He’s never going to be a big man, but he has a big heart and is very committed.
“He’s very quick, but that pitch was horrific. It was horrific for both sides, but the French teams have a lot bigger people than us poor Scots.”
Stade Francais’ failure to pick up a try bonus means they now visit Pau in the quarter-finals, while Edinburgh are at home to Cardiff, knowing victory at Murrayfield will send them back to France for the semi-final. “We’ll look forward to that,” Cockerill said of the game against Cardiff, whom his team have already beaten in Wales in the PRO14 this season. “It will be a big occasion, but as we’ve seen against Glasgow and Stade, when we have everyone in the right mental state we’re good enough to compete and win those games. Hopefully, we’ll have some injured guys back, which should make a difference. We’re looking forward to going as far as we can in this competition.
“If we win that we will have the pleasure of going to Pau or to Stade. If we have to come back to France and play in a semi-final then games like this one will be vital.”
CHALLENGE CUP QUARTER-FINALS:
QF1 Pau v Stade Francais
QF2 Edinburgh v Cardiff
QF3 Connacht v Gloucester
QF4 Newcastle v Brive
Matches to be played on weekend beginning Friday 30 March.
Winner QF1 v Winner QF2.
Winner QF3 v Winner QF4.
Matches to be played on weekend beginning Friday 20 April. Edinburgh will definitely be away if they get through, while Cardiff will be at home if they win at Murrayfield. Gloucester will have a home semi if they win in Galway, and Connacht will be away to Newcastle or Brive if they reach the last four.
Friday 11 May, San Mames Stadium, Bilbao.